In The Location of Culture (1994), the influential post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha articulated the paradoxical role of the Other as object, simultaneously, of “desire and derision”. This idea of the fundamental instability of the binary of self and other is intelligently revisited from a gendered perspective by Sara de Jong in her important new book, Complicit Sisters.
If the women’s movement is fractured, de Jong argues, then the power dynamics of the North/South divide are played out in and around those fault lines. Using black and post-colonial feminism, she examines the considerable influence that women in the global North wield when it comes to “doing good” for women in the global South. Bhabha’s desire/derision quandary is, according to de Jong, significant for these “complicit sisters” – women whose efforts to dismantle oppressive structures in the global South are informed by precisely those colonial legacies that they are ostensibly undoing.
De Jong moves beyond the “strained relationship between privileged women and their ‘subordinate sisters’” that has characterised much recent work in development studies. The idea that feminism all too often comes from a white, middle-class perspective is hardly a revolutionary one. That many in the academy still treat intersectionality as if it were a new idea, however, almost 30 years after Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term, tells us something important about the complacent nature of the field, and about the relevance of de Jong’s book.
Non-governmental organisations, the great white hope – and I use that redolent phrase quite intentionally – of the post-war 20th century, have had their shortcomings documented by commentators such as the Tanzanian academic Issa Shivji. De Jong, too, critiques the “neoimperial and postcolonial project” of international development. The purportedly utopian notion of the “global citizen” is also dissected, and she depicts global mobility as deeply problematic in its elitism. “The seemingly neutral term ‘mobility’,” she warns her readers, “should not hide the structurally embedded differences between the travel of aid workers to the global South and the journeys of migrants who access NGO services in the North.”
Complicit Sisters is an unrepentantly “academic” book. Parenthetical citations come so thick and fast that they sometimes hinder the fluency of the prose. Structurally, there are issues, too: it’s an at-times clunky read, and de Jong’s ideas interested me (and her, too, I sensed) far more than her rather dry explication of her methodological approach. It’s also an expensive publication – and this is a paradox in itself, as it highlights problems of accessibility, reinscribing precisely those polarising divisions between “us” (who have money or access to a university library) and “them” (who have neither) that the narrative works so hard to demolish.
Ultimately, however, the voices of the 21 women from the global North de Jong interviews – who work with female migrants or “on the ground” in the global South – are vividly rendered. Even if we are “complicit sisters”, the book’s dominant message is one of hope. De Jong’s own faith in the notion of “sisterhood”, and that of her participants, is powerful enough to offset – albeit only temporarily – the ugly, crushing actuality of global geopolitics today. It’s no longer enough simply to “do good” if one is not “doing it right”. With books such as this, there’s no excuse not to.
Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.
Complicit Sisters: Gender and Women’s Issues across North-South Divides
By Sara de Jong
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £47.99
Published 6 April 2017